Skip to main content

Calling all Americans to the communal table of Thanksgiving

Written By | Nov 19, 2018
First Thanksgiving, Heart, Native Indians, Pilgrims,Thanksgiving, Division, America, Identity Politics, Allan Brownfield

The First Thanksgiving, 1621, Jean-Leon Gerome Ferris

Thanksgiving 2018 is here just when we need it the most. The divisions in our society have been escalating over the last ten years because of intemperate political rhetoric. Rhetoric which casts those with whom we disagree on matters of public policy as “enemies.”   The growth of the left’s “identity politics.”   Politics that declare we must identify ourselves by race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion.  Politics that divide.

Even as we are collecting into our little micro-groups that allow no one else to the table.  We are not viewing ourselves as individual citizens of a communal free and democratic society.

This division will be how we lose our Republic. Become less than what we are.

It is time to take a moment and recall the uniqueness of American society. From its very earliest days, ours has been a country made up of men and women of every conceivable background.  And from the very start, we were divided.  By nationality, religion, Native vs. Immigrant, and economic class.

In the days of colonial America, Thomas Paine writes:

“Is there a country in the world where concord, according to common calculation, would be least experienced, it is America. Made up, as it is, of people from different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of government, speaking different languages, and more different in their modes of worship, it would appear that the Union of such a people was impracticable. But by the simple operation of constructing government on the principles of society and the rights of man, every difficulty retires, and the parts are brought into cordial unison.”

On the subject of who America is Oliver Wendell Holmes opines,

“We are the Romans of the modern world, the great assimilating people.”

America, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, was not simply another country:

“France was a land. England was a people, but America, having about it still the quality of the idea, was harder to utter.  It was the graves at Shiloh, and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.”

American diversity – strength or weakness

In recent days, some have said that diversity is an American “weakness,” not a strength. Any who hold this view do not understand our history. Diversity is not a novel 21st-century notion. It is the reality of our society from its earliest days.

Visiting New Amsterdam in 1643, French Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues was surprised to discover that in a town of 8,000 people, 18 languages were spoken. J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote in 1782 in his “Letters From An American Farmer,” that,

“Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

There was never a time when American society was not diverse.

By the time of the first census in 1790, people of English origin were already a minority. Enslaved Africans and their American-born descendants, made up 20 percent of the population. There were large clusters of Scotch-Irish, German, Dutch and Scottish settlers, and smaller numbers of Swedes, Finns, Huguenots, and Sephardic Jews.

America has been a nation much loved. Germans have loved Germany, Frenchmen have loved France, Swedes have loved Sweden. Lo, of course, is only natural. However, America has been loved not only by native Americans but by men and women throughout the world. Individuals who yearn for freedom.

In the 1840s, Herman Melville wrote:

“We are the heirs of all time, and with all nations, we divide our inheritance. If you kill an American, you shed the blood of the whole world.”
The American Dream

America dreamed a bigger dream than any nation in history. The dream remains very much alive, despite the efforts of those who would diminish it. It will survive even the tortured partisanship of the present time.

At a time when intolerance is rampant, especially on social media, we see growing manifestations of hate leading to violence. The murder of eleven worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in, Pittsburgh is a recent example. The killer is a white nationalist, a neo-Nazi who holds anger at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which helps resettle refugees from around the world.

HIAS started its work in the 1880s. It says it initially helped refugees because they were Jewish. Now it helps refugees from Iraq, Syria, Bangladesh and elsewhere “because we are Jewish.”

If the Pittsburgh shooter, in denouncing the “immigrant invasion,” thinks he was upholding some American tradition, he is simply wrong. After all, his ancestors were immigrants as were the ancestors of all of us other than the descendants of the natives who greeted them.

Ties between Thanksgiving and Judaism

President Geroge Washington gave definition to the American tradition we celebrate on Thanksgiving Day. In his  letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, the President says:

“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

From the beginning, America has represented hope for a better future to people throughout the world. In a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1849, Thomas Carlyle wrote:

“How beautiful to think of lean, tough Yankee settlers, tough as gutta-percha, with most occult unsubduable fire in their belly, steering over the Western Mountains to annihilate the jungle, and bring bacon and corn out of it for the Posterity of Adam. There is no Myth of Athene or Herakles to equal this fact.”

In 1866, Lord Acton, British Liberal Party leader, says that America was becoming a “distant magnet.”   Acton asking if apart from the “millions who have crossed the ocean, who should reckon the millions whose hearts and hopes are in the United States, to whom the rising sun is in the West?”

America still young despite our age

We are a young country, but we are also an old one. Our Constitution is the oldest in the world. We have continuously maintained the freedoms we first sought to attain. There has been no period of elimination of freedom of religion, of the press, or assembly. We have weathered wars and depressions. We will also endure the difficulties we now have.

How ironic, that in a period of peace and prosperity, our political life has deteriorated to its present state. Democracy cannot thrive if men and women who disagree about public policy, health care, criminal justice, immigration, the environment, regulation of firearms, tax policy, are unwilling to work together. If “one side”, as if we are not all Americans, insists upon labeling those with whom they disagree “enemies.” or worse.

What happened to our traditional view of the “loyal opposition?”

We will move forward only if we recognize the fragility of a free and democratic society. America will break if we fail to cherish its genuine uniqueness. Thanksgiving is a time to recall our history.  A time to remember our values. A time to reject those, on either the right or left, who seek only to condemn and divide.



Lead Image:  The First Thanksgiving, 1621, Jean-Leon Gerome Ferris

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.